A U.S. Army M109A6 Paladin conducts a fire mission at Qayyarah West, Iraq, in support of the Iraqi security forcesâ push toward Mosul, Oct. 17, 2016. The support provided by the Paladin teams denies the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant safe havens while providing the ISF with vital artillery capabilities during their advance. The United States stands with a Coalition of more than 60 international partners to assist and support the Iraqi security forces to degrade and defeat ISIL. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht)

The Resurgent Insurgent: Mosul One Year After The Battle

It is now over a year since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi announced that the Islamic State had been swept from the streets of Mosul. While one part of the city is showing strong signs of recovery, the poorer Sunni-majority Western half of the city remains a ruin, and within the rubble lies a very real risk of a resurgent Islamic State appearing once more to prey on disenfranchised Sunni residents. Following his recent return from Mosul, British Army Officer Archie Hicox (pen name) examines the current state of the city and its future.

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Since Abadi’s declaration of victory against the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul, the East of the city has recovered remarkably quickly; the hustle and bustle returning to the local markets, the shouts of locals mingle with the smells of car exhausts and the street food. The West of the city, in contrast, is a shattered husk.  The pulverised concrete and stone still lies in heaps, the putrid smell of corpses trapped below the rubble fills the air. As many as 40,000 people may have died in the city; an unknowable mix of civilians, families and IS fighters. The vast majority of these were killed in the West of the city.


Fig 1.0 – Neighbourhoods of Mosul (high detail version)

To understand why, we must revisit the encirclement of Mosul by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). IS quickly fell back from the spacious Eastern portion of the city across the river, and into their pre-prepared defensive positions in the sweltering maze of the old city. They (correctly) concluded that this would offer them the greatest chance of protracting their occupation given the complexity of the terrain. The ISF were forced to clear the city street by street and were swiftly drawn into an urban battle the likes of which had unlikely been seen since Stalingrad. ISF and coordinated Coalition Airstrikes struck IS positions across the West, gradually pushing them back to pockets of resistance centred on cellars containing supplies and their families. This pressure was cranked up until the city became an unrecognisable heap of twisted metal and stone. It was at this point that Abadi’s victory was declared.

Victory is all well and good. It was necessary and needed to lift the yoke of Islamist tyranny from the people of Mosul. I stress that word: ‘people’. Mosul is not a physical collection of buildings, but the people who call it home. The problem now is that they no longer have anywhere to truly call home. The West of Mosul is still in ruins. Those who lived there previously simply cannot do so anymore without staggering levels of outside assistance to provide necessities ranging from housing, hospital care, security, UXO defusal, corpse removal, through to basic urban infrastructure. The real problem though is that the plight of West Mosul is unfairly centred on a single group. The Sunni.

Map of ISIS's capture of the city of Mosul in June 2014.

Fig 2.0 – Map of IS’s capture of Mosul in June 2014 (U.S. Army Threat Tactics Report)

Iraq has not been a great place to be a Sunni since the downfall of the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Yes, steps have been made to reduce Sectarianism, but the memories of Maliki’s snubs against the Sunni people live fresh in the minds of many.  Indeed Al Qaeda in Iraq sprang from the well of discontent in the Sunni people, and IS directly trace their lineage from them. It is no coincidence that Mosul was the first major city to fall to IS. A disenfranchised Sunni population with mass youth unemployment and a shaky security apparatus that was predominantly staffed by Shi’a recruits. The geopolitical concern now is that the lessons of the past have not been heeded.

IS has been shattered as a conventional force, but the splintered remains appear to be living on.

Mosul will require, by conservative estimates, over $1 Billion USD to be rebuilt. This money is simply not available in post-occupation Iraq. The government has tried donor conferences – with limited success – but they simply need money more quickly than other states are offering. The U.S. has pointedly refused monetary assistance in this matter. The Iraqi people are patient, but patience has its limits. When local volunteers are dragging the bloated bodies of their friends, families and enemies from the remnants of the city, when locals fall victim to IS booby traps in their former homes, it will not be long before they turn elsewhere for help.

There is a groundswell in reporting of the emergence of an “IS 2.0” in Mosul, but this ignores the simple (rather awkward) fact that IS never really left. The declaration of victory by Abadi has been taken to be that of total victory over IS and their pervasive ideology by some areas of the press. This is naïve in the extreme. Reports of IS attacks, kidnappings, extortion, and scouting have been seen every day since Abadi spoke of victory over a year ago. IS has been shattered as a conventional force, but the splintered remains appear to be living on.

A solution to this is to remove the fertile recruiting ground that IS and its Sunni extremist successors will exploit. To fight the mistaken ideas such as; “Iraq is now a Shi’a state“, that “the Sunni will be punished for the offences of their kin in AQI and IS“, and that “they should expect to be downtrodden after their predominance under the Ba’ath party“. All of these tropes feed the Sunni extremist rhetoric and make an IS-successor all the more likely.

Reconstruction of predominantly Sunni areas will help to show that the Government of Iraq is a government for all, and not just for the Shi’a south. To facilitate this, reconstruction will need to come from outside agencies as well as the Iraqi government. Security for reconstruction teams is a practicality that must be a joint effort between Iraqi Security Forces and the Coalition. NGOs must feel able to conduct their duties without fear of kidnap or worse. This could be achieved through the continued banning of groups seeking to inspire discord from Mosul, specifically hardline Shi’a militias.  Sunni Militias can be used to put a local face on security (which would also employ large numbers of bored Sunni young men who are prey for extremists recruiters). These would then be placed under the watchful eye of Sunni/Shia/Christian-mixed Army units to ensure governance does not stray into petty extortion and criminality. A move away from sectarianism, employment for young men, and a security umbrella for NGOs delivering a crucial service will help to stabilise Mosul and move it towards a future that is sustainable within a united Iraq.

The international community has a shrinking window to assist Sunni areas within Iraq and show them that they are not second class citizens, and they must deliver on their promise to help without blame or penalty.  $1 Billion USD is a lot,  however the cost of the West re-entering Iraq for the third time in the near future will almost certainly be greater.

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Archie Hicox is the pen name of a serving British Army officer with an academic background in current affairs and international relations. He has deployed throughout the world on multiple operations, most of which are spent in mentoring roles with local forces. He is particularly passionate about Middle Eastern geopolitical affairs.

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Photo credit: Cover image – U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Brecht // Neighbourhoods of Mosul – Maximilian Dörrbecker // Fall of Mosul map – U.S. Army